If you only had a bigger pay cheque … you'd be happier and more satisfied, right?
As the late rapper the Notorious B.I.G. described it in Mo Money Mo Problems: "It's like the more money we come across. The more problems we see."
In a recent poll by CNNMoney, called the American Dream, more than half of the respondents said they'd be happy if their household earned under $100,000. And about a quarter of respondents said that between $50,000 and $75,000 would be ideal.
Every now and then, a new analysis is published on the relationship between income and what researchers call "subjective well-being" – often measured with questions about happiness or life satisfaction. In the ensuing media buzz, inevitably that age-old question rears its head: "Does money really buy happiness?"
The typical message is that higher levels of income are associated with higher levels of subjective well-being … but only to a point. Some research identifies that point at the $75,000 mark. Sociologists John Mirowsky and Catherine Ross have observed that the psychological boost of each additional $10,000 is strongest at the lowest end of the income spectrum, and it gets increasingly smaller up the scale and eventually levels off. This is called the "diminishing marginal effect."
There is no question that the stress of lower status – such as financial strain and precarious jobs that are highly routine, repetitive or noxious – poses a serious threat to well-being. My own and others' studies of Canadian and American workers demonstrate that these are disadvantaged structural conditions that heightened distress among lower earners.
However, when social scientists speculate about the diminishing returns of income up the ladder, the standard explanation often shifts toward the psychological. We hear theories about rising (unrealistic) expectations or dampened pleasures from having more money than we "need." In an interview for Inc., Daniel Kahneman – the 2002 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics – asserted that "when people have a lot more money, they can buy a lot more pleasures, but there are some indications that when you have a lot of money, you will savour each pleasure less."
As a sociologist, I've wondered if these types of psychological explanations underestimate the power of the conditions in work and family life. Over the past decade, that curiosity has led to my discoveries about three pressure points that contribute to what I call the $50-75k funk:
• Being swamped, saddled and strained: "I have too much work to do everything well!" If you find yourself saying this, you know what it's like to experience the quantity-quality squeeze. You're not alone: Approximately three in 10 workers encounter it – and its prevalence has increased since the Great Recession. The attempt to maintain quality in the face of increased workload leads to longer hours, more overtime and excessive job pressure. This is the madness that is so eloquently captured by Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte in her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.
• Mo' money mo' people problems: A co-worker gets on your nerves. A subordinate can't seem to follow directions. Someone else takes credit for work that you did. Google the word "incompetence" and your supervisor's face pops up. Unreasonable clients. Rude customers. Angry e-mails. There is little doubt that interpersonal conflict at work gets to us, eroding at satisfaction, happiness and well-being. My research demonstrates that people who earn more money tend to have more job authority, which exposes them to more people problems – and this undermines the health benefits of authority.
• Fuzzy borders: For many higher-status workers, the work/family borders have become fuzzy. This represents the sometimes problematic nexus between social roles, with all of their respective expectations and complications. Of the three pressure points, this might be the most complex because of its connections to job demands, especially overwork, and its harmful effects on health.
If all things were equal, people with higher earnings and more job authority would tend to feel less tense and anxious and they'd feel calmer – and probably happier. The problem is: All things aren't equal. Compared to people with lower earnings and little job authority, those in the $50-75k bracket and those who have more responsibility for others at work tend to be exposed more frequently to these pressure points. This is what I call the stress of higher status.
Few would quibble with the claim that more money and power provide access to a world of resources that, on balance, tend to make life easier and yield psychological payoffs. Too often, however, the income/happiness debate is framed around the differences between "the rich" and "the poor." This neglects differences across the entire income spectrum and the distinctive types of stressors that contribute to them. Addressing this will provide a more complete portrait of emotional inequality in the population. And, for individual workers, neutralizing the effects of the three pressure points might reduce distress a notch and give a bump to happiness and satisfaction.
As the American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1860 collection of essays, The Conduct of Life: "Money often costs too much." Pretty deep. I think B.I.G. and R.W.E. were onto something.
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Dr. Scott Schieman is a Canada Research Chair (Social Contexts of Health) and professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the causes and health consequences of social stress. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottSchiemanUT